In times of Instagram, does the theatre of food surpass the food itself?

F&B personalities debate whether restaurants should be ‘Experiential or Food First’ at the NRAI Indian Restaurant Summit 2023

Urvashi Bhattacharya Published 09.10.23, 02:10 PM
All photos by Soumyajit Dey

(L-R) Salman Shaikh of Bademiya, Amit Bagga of Daryaganj, Aseem Grover of The Big Chill, chef Kunal Kapur, moderator Anurag Katriar of Indigo Hospitality, Varun Tuli of Yum Yum Tree Group, and Gauri Devidayal of Food Matters Group

The ultimate Food Fight at the NRAI Indian Restaurant Summit 2023 saw seven restaurateurs debate whether or not food should be about the experience or just the food itself, especially during times when Instagram plays a major role in #FoodPorn. With Anurag Katriar of Indigo Hospitality being the moderator, the panel spoke against and for the motion.

Excerpts from the debate follow...


‘Taste is prime’

Whether presentation or taste, they both come second and third in order. The primary purpose of food is to provide nutrition. It depends on the standard of living one has. For a person with limited meals, who will grab a meal while working, presentation is not the key, nor taste. You have to fill your tummy. Once you have more means, are floating in opulence and have the luxury of bringing in a marketing tool like Instagram and saying that is the key… then sure it is. Making food Instagramable is a marketing tool. Whether it should be presentation or taste first, it is an open choice for all of us. The point of Instagram is to bring you to the restaurant and order the dish you saw, but after that, everything is background noise once the first bite hits the right spot. Taste is prime.

— Chef Kunal Kapur

‘We let the food speak for itself’

We have a family-centric restaurant and we put food first and let people take photos on their phones for Instagram. We let the food speak for itself. That is what we believe in and that’s what we put forward. Instagram is a tool. It’s like a knife that has a sharp edge and the other side. It depends on how you’re using it and it depends on the user experience and algorithm. Your product needs to be right.

— Salman Shaikh, chef manager, Bademiya

L-R: Salman Shaikh with Varun Tuli and Kunal Kapur

L-R: Salman Shaikh with Varun Tuli and Kunal Kapur

‘People don’t just go for the food, but also the experience’

We’ve been in the business for 15 years and when we had our first restaurant a restauranter told me, “Tu kya kar raha hai? (What are you doing?) You’re not making money, just focusing on food.” Then he said, “Food in the food business is incidental.” The moment I understood that, it changed for us. Anybody who visits a restaurant goes to lose themselves for 30 minutes or more. People may not begoing only for the food, but also for the experience, smell, and sights. The idea behind something being extremely attractive, something you can lose yourself in, is far more important than perhaps the food itself.

— Varun Tuli, managing director, Yum Yum Tree Group

L-R: Anurag Katriar, Varun Tuli, Gauri Devidayal

L-R: Anurag Katriar, Varun Tuli, Gauri Devidayal

‘Instagram builds brand awareness’

I am on the side of Instagram. First three years of our restaurant, The Table, there was no Instagram. It was all word of mouth and that meant the proof was in the pudding. But today, I don’t know a single restaurant in the world that does not create an Instagram page before it opens its doors to the public. It’s not a battle, they both have to co-exist. There is good food but you also have to build brand awareness. We have to make money and bring people through the door and that’s what Instagram does. It’s not just about pretty pictures, it’s also about what people write and you can’t live without it.

— Gauri Devidayal, co-founder, Food Matters Group

‘Do not play with your photos’

I am on the side of food first. I agree that both are important but there’s a certain percentage. Twenty per cent to Instagram and 80 per cent to food. We have all gone to a theatre or show but how many times will you watch it again? You will not, because you have seen the show once and that’s it. But if it is a taste you like, you will keep coming back for it. I am the founder of the brand Daryaganj and if you see pictures of my main two dishes, they don’t look that great, but we did not play with the photos. It has to look exactly the way it is presented. You should let your customers see what the product is so it doesn’t raise their expectations so when they come to taste it, it doesn’t disappoint.

— Amit Bagga, co-founder & CEO, Daryaganj Hospitality

L-R: Amit Bagga, Aseem Grover, and Kunal Kapur

L-R: Amit Bagga, Aseem Grover, and Kunal Kapur

‘Instagram is a necessary evil’

I am old-fashioned, I don’t understand social media much. We did start without an Instagram page. Food has always been experiential. Has Instagram added to it? Whether you’re getting kebabs from the roadside, in your car, or in a restaurant, it is experiential. If there wasn’t any Instagram, the music in the restaurant would be experiential along with lighting, painting, presentation and more. You first eat with your eyes and then your stomach, so the question is, why is there a camera eating in the middle? Instagram for marketing is fine, but what is it doing to the people eating? First people would just come and eat. Now, it is, “No wait, let me take a picture.” Then it has to be edited and uploaded in a nanosecond. Then you look at the likes. So, did you enjoy your food?

— Aseem Grover, owner, The Big Chill

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